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Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger

Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger

As a child growing up with Saturday morning serials at the cinema, it seemed that most of the bad guys spoke with a foreign accent and carried a Luger pistol. Whatever the moviemakers’ reasons, it did make the Luger, along with the Colt SAA and Model 1911, one of the most recognisable handguns in the World.

Hugo Borchardt

Born in Germany in 1844, Hugo Borchardt, at the age of 16, emigrated to the USA with his parents. His early working life is unclear, but by 1872 we find him employed by the Pioneer Breech Loading Arms Co. in Massachusetts. Twoyears later he is a foreman at the Singer Sewing Machine Company followed by short spells working with Colt and Winchester. In early 1875, Nelson King, formerly employed by Winchester, was appointed by the Sharps Rifle Co. to try and bolster falling sales. His idea for a new single shot rifle proved too costly to manufacture and his stubbornness to make concessions resulted in a parting of the ways. Borchardt, who had been second choice for the job, was offered the position and became superintendent on June 1st, 1876. He quickly came up with a design that was stronger, cheaper and easier to make than King’s effort and was granted a patent on 26th December, 1876. Named by Sharps as their Model 1878, it was hoped this new design would be the salvation of the ailing company but the hoped for military contracts, along with the upsurge in the use of repeating rifles, were not forthcoming and the factory closed its doors for good in 1881.

Hugo returned to Europe and by 1893 he was working for Ludwig Loewe at Karlsruhe in Germany, designing the C-93. The mechanism of his pistol, a recoil operated, locked breech semi-automatic, was based around Hiram Maxim’s 1884 toggle action machine gun patent. The pistol, with an eight shot magazine, was built around a new 7.65 x 25mm bottleneck cartridge, a more powerful version of which was later used in the Mauser C96 pistol.

Innovative as it was at the time, proving accurate and with a rapid rate of fire, the Borchardt pistol was expensive to manufacture and awkward to handle, due to its vertical grip and poor weight distribution. It also suffered from rather heavy recoil. Once again we find a designer unwilling to give way and only around three thousand examples of the pistol were made before changes were implemented.

Georg Johann Luger

Georg was born on 6th March, 1849, in Steinach am Bremmer in Austria. His early schooling was in Padua, Italy and then at the Commercial High in Vienna. At the age of 17 he volunteered for military service in the Austrian Army and served in the infantry with the 78th Line Regiment. Within six-months he had made corporal and shortly afterwards was promoted to pay sergeant with the 39th Line Regiment. He proved himself a good marksman and was sent to the Military Firearms School where he showed an interest in automatic loading systems for firearms. After completing his four-years’ service in December 1871, he was transferred to the Reserve with a rank of lieutenant. He married Elisabeth Josefa Dufek in 1873 and they had three children. His eldest son, Georg Franz, worked for the English firm of Armstrong Whitworth Vickers through their tie-up with the Loewe Group in Austria.

His grasp of the Italian language, from his schooldays in Padua, stood Georg in good stead when he worked for a while as a foreign representative for Loewe of Berlin selling Mannlicher rifles in Italy. In the mid-1890s he spent some time demonstrating the Borchardt C-93 semi-automatic pistol to the Swiss government and to the United States navy. The shortcomings of the Borchardt pistol would not be lost on Luger and when he was given the task of improving the design he rose to the challenge.

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  • Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger - image {image:count}

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  • Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger - image {image:count}

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  • Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger - image {image:count}

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  • Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger - image {image:count}

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  • Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger - image {image:count}

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  • Great Names in Gun Making: Georg Luger - image {image:count}

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The toggle link action worked well enough but that ungainly main spring housing behind the grip was a problem. Luger replaced the coil spring with a leaf spring located in the grip, immediately improving the balance. The vertical grip was angled to improve pointability and the barrel shortened. He also designed a new cartridge, the 7.65 Parabellum (7.65 x 21mm), which reduced the Borchardt’s fierce recoil and shortened the stroke of the toggle. The new pistol looked to be a winner and Loewe & Co. began to search for military orders to justify the production.

The Swiss Army tried the pistol and adopted it as their standard side arm in 1900.

Their model had a 4¾-inch barrel and used the 7.65 x 21mm cartridge. In 1904 a new, more powerful cartridge, the 9mm Parabellum, was introduced to alleviate worries about the lack of stopping power of the smaller bullet. The Imperial German Navy accepted the pistol in 1904, giving it the designation Pistole 04, with a 150mm barrel and twoposition rear sight. Four years later the German Army chose the Luger pistol, with a fourinch barrel, to replace its long serving (1879-1908) 10.6mm Reichsrevolver, naming it Pistole 08 or P08. The P08 was the standard side arm of the German Army during both World Wars, although replacement with the Walther P38 began in 1938. A longer, eight-inch-barrelled version with a shoulder stock and holster was available to Germen artillery personnel.

The word parabellum comes from the Latin ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ which translates as ‘If you seek peace, prepare for war’, which was the motto of DWM a principal Luger manufacturer.

Worldwide acceptance

Georg Luger’s pistol was subsequently adopted by military and police forces throughout the world and produced under licence in a number of countries. The Americans had two examples made up in .45ACP calibre but they were subsequently beaten in Army trials by John Browning’s semi-auto pistol that eventually morphed into the Colt 1911. One of these pistols resides in a museum in the States – the other one is still out there somewhere.

During the 1960s the firm of ERMA produced a .22 rimfire version of the Luger and a couple of decades later Stoeger in the USA began making a stainless steel model. The variety of models and accessories of the early pistols has made them a target for collectors and top class examples can command high prices at today’s auctions.

There have been numerous books written on the Luger story and many are available on the popular auction sites. Prices vary from quite inexpensive for the smaller recent editions to £50-plus for older, out of print copies.

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